Atomic Blonde is a stylish, yet uneven, thriller, punctuated by a strong performance by Theron and thrilling action set pieces.
In 1989, towards the end of the Cold War amidst political unrest in Berlin, secret agent James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) is killed on the streets by Russian operative Yuri Bakhtin (Jóhannes Jóhannesson). The MI6, led by Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and Chief C (James Faulkner) dispatch their top-level spy Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) to Berlin with a special mission. Broughton has to locate Bakhtin and the classified list of names involved in intelligence organizations he stole, or else the conflict could endure for several more years. Upon arriving in Germany, Broughton meets up with her contact, David Percival (James McAvoy), and the two form an uneasy alliance with each other.
As Lorraine begins her search for the list, she suspects that not all is what it seems, and attempts to navigate through a web of deception, unsure of who she can really trust. With the list out in the open available to the highest bidder, Broughton enters a fight for her life, trying to survive so she can prevent catastrophic consequences from happening.
Based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, Atomic Blonde is the first solo directorial outing by John Wick co-helmsman David Leitch. The combination of the filmmaker's prowess with action and Theron's standing as one of the premier female action stars (especially after her turn in Mad Max: Fury Road) excited many with the prospect of "Jane Wick," albeit a story told in the world of espionage instead of underground crime. The end result is something of a mixed bag. Atomic Blonde is a stylish, yet uneven, thriller, punctuated by a strong performance by Theron and thrilling action set pieces.
While the movie has no shortage of excellent set pieces (more on them in a minute), Atomic Blonde is hamstrung by an uninspired script that leaves something to be desired. The premise of the main narrative is quite standard and brings little new to the table, using a MacGuffin similar to those from a number of spy titles before it. It also lacks a compelling emotional through-line, making it difficult for some viewers to become truly invested in the proceedings. In some places, Atomic Blonde tries a little too hard to embrace the twisty nature of espionage films, ultimately coming across as too convoluted for its own good. The events of the story are easy to follow, they're just needlessly complicated at times - when a more streamlined and focused approach would have been for the better.
Where Atomic Blonde shines is through its technical merits. Leitch demonstrates that he has skill behind the camera, crafting numerous sequences that stand out and are downright brutal in their execution. One scene set inside a stairwell is the highlight of the whole picture, but Leitch fully commits to all the action bits with top-notch choreography and camera work. His vision is complimented nicely by the cinematography from Jonathan Sela, who uses a variety of muted colors to paint a striking canvas that underscores the themes and atmosphere of the story. Atomic Blonde is arguably an exercise in style over substance, but Leitch's flair is enough to make the movie an enjoyable enough ride through its 2-hour runtime, and the film never overstays its welcome.
The real MVP of Atomic Blonde, however, is Theron, who once again proves she's more than capable of carrying an action film on her shoulders. She portrays Lorraine as a steely, no-nonsense spy and masterfully handles all of the physical elements of the performance. Much like Leitch's John Wick star Keanu Reeves, Theron does most of her own stunts, which helps elevate the final product. Unfortunately, there isn't much to the character of Broughton for Theron (an Oscar-winning actress) to explore, but she's game for everything Leitch throws her way, becoming a new fan-favorite that could be explored further in sequels. Lorraine is a fun character to watch onscreen, even if she isn't the most interesting protagonist at times.
In terms of the supporting cast, Theron's co-stars aren't so lucky. McAvoy is the one who makes the largest impression, having a devilishly good time as Percival, playing up the character's unpredictable nature of a station chief who has gone feral. The rest don't fare as well and are mostly wasted in their roles. Jones and John Goodman (who plays the CIA's Emmett Kurzfeld) are relegated mainly to an interrogation room where they simply ask questions and react. Sofia Boutella tries to make the most of her French operative Delphine Lasalle, but her screen time is too limited for her dynamic with Lorraine to be fully fleshed out. Eddie Marsan is perhaps the most sympathetic figure of the bunch, bringing MI6 ally Spyglass to life, but he too only appears in a handful of scenes and isn't afforded much in the way of characterization. For better or worse, Atomic Blonde is Theron's show through and through.
The shortcomings of Atomic Blonde's screenplay prevent it from realizing its full potential, but the film still makes for a solid time at the theater. Action fans will surely get a kick out of what Leitch and Theron have in store, hoping that the director will handle the set pieces for Deadpool 2 with similar panache. As the summer season winds to a close, Atomic Blonde can be recommended for genre enthusiasts eager to see something geared for a more adult crowd, but it's honestly something that only those intrigued by the marketing should rush out to see.
Atomic Blonde is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 115 minutes and is rated R for sequences of strong violence, language throughout, and some sexuality/nudity.